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Dispatches from Africa: Food is the First Medicine

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Zambian women frequently must walk miles to gather firewood. Photo by Margaret W. Nea.

As the Bread for the World delegation to Africa approached the office of the Commission on Food and Nutrition in Lusaka, Zambia, we saw three enormous "1,000 Days" banners that were 10 feet wide and six feet tall on the walls in front of the building. I have been working with denominational women’s organizations in the United States for the last six months building support for the 1,000 Days Movement, so this was encouraging to see.

The commission, established in 1967, was lodged in the Ministry of Health so that it would have more flexibility than an additional ministry. Unfortunately, now it doesn’t have the authority over other ministries to build a multi-sector approach to ending malnutrition and hunger in Zambia. It has focused on treatment instead of prevention by increasing caloric intake, but not improving nutritional value.

Dr. Cassim Masi, executive director of the commission, said, “Food is the first medicine.” In the United States we take nutrition for granted and think only of medicine when our children get sick. In Zambia, when a child is sick and needs medicine, she also needs the proper nutrition to strengthen her immune system, heart, lungs, and brain.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the feeding center at the University Training Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia. Parents bring acutely malnourished children there. I spoke with a young woman who told me she learned the food that she was feeding her 1-year-old son did not have enough nutrients. Hospital staff  taught her how to feed him a variety of foods and to incorporate vegetables in his diet. I asked her if she would be able to change his diet in this way and she said, “I will try.” It’s heartbreaking to know that information alone is not enough.

The good news is that Zambia has taken the first steps to address malnutrition—especially during the critical 1,000 day window from pregnancy until a child’s second birthday. They have signed on to be an early-riser country in the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement (SUN) and will partner with donor countries and organizations with technical expertise to develop strategies and implement programs to improve nutrition across several sectors of society including agriculture and health. 

Nancy-neal-tanzaniaNancy Neal is associate for denominational women's organization relations at Bread for the World.

 

 

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